PAUL GARNER enjoys a survey of an oddly little-known county
Edge of England is a rich tapestry woven of many threads—history, nature, industry, geography, religion and folklore—all intertwining to create a picture full of interest. It tells the story, or rather multiplexity of stories, of the author’s adopted county of Lincolnshire, an unjustly overlooked and unfashionable part of England, one that is often, as the author reminds us in his opening chapter, the butt of snide jokes and liberal disdain. Turner’s book challenges this snobbery and prejudice, revealing “a county like no other … an England time half-forgot, where you can still find an unabashed past inside an unpretentious present—and freedom and space on a little offshore island”.
Turner delights the reader with captivating tales of eccentric characters, atmospheric places and intriguing events, his wide reading and breadth of knowledge apparent on every page. A thousand and one rabbit trails are laid by the author, any one of which could profitably be followed by an inquisitive reader. We learn about the lives and times of many sons and daughters of the shire, some well-known, others less so. Among the colourful characters that we meet are parliamentarians, scientists, explorers, military men, poets and writers, and religious figures.
The more familiar include John Wesley, the evangelical clergyman whose spirited preaching was the fountainhead of the emerging Methodist movement, Sir Isaac Newton, the scientific prodigy who developed differential calculus while sheltering from the plague at Woolsthorpe in 1665, and Dutch engineer, Cornelius Vermuyden, whose land reclamation work met with fierce opposition from locals, who feared dispossession. But we are also introduced to less familiar personalities, such as the cantankerous nineteenth-century contrarian, Sir Charles Sibthorp, who, as MP for the city of Lincoln, vehemently opposed steam railways, water closets and barrel organs, the polymathic Sir Joseph Banks, who accompanied Captain Cook aboard HMS Endeavour, and amassed important collections of botanical specimens, and the demon-afflicted Saint Guthlac, who, at the end of the seventh century, established a hermitage at Crowland, destined, after his death, to become a monastic centre and place of Christian pilgrimage.
Turner writes with affection of the ordinary people of Lincolnshire. They are kind, practical, helpful and courteous, even to outsiders, and when they get to know you “accord you the ultimate sign of acceptance—telling you about the idiocy of London”. He describes, with wistful melancholia, Lincolnshire’s lost villages, decaying industries and disappearing ways of life, but does not rub salt into the wounds in the fashion of some unkind commentators. Grimsby may be down-at-heel today, with “a depressed town centre, and too much bad housing”, but Turner writes movingly of the skill and bravery of its sailors and fishermen, and the fortitude of their families, ensuring that the reader knows of the town’s epic origins, regal connections, and dogged “tough pride.”
Many absorbing stories are related, ranging from the whimsical and quirky to the ghoulish and macabre. There is the curious tale of the “Stamford Schism”, an ill-fated attempt by a cadre of unhappy students and tutors from Oxford to establish a rival institution at Stamford in 1333. It was a short-lived venture, the brass door knocker the students took with them when they left Oxford now proudly displayed above high table at Brasenose, in the manner of a spoil of war. The Haxey Hood is another oddity, a game played every January in the town of Haxey, during which enthusiastic locals chase a group of costumed “Boggins” around the town in pursuit of a leather bolster, ostensibly re-enacting an incident with a riding hood said to have taken place almost 700 years ago.
Grisly crimes, pogroms and witch trials are also part of the county’s story. For instance, Turner tells of the tragic death of poor Mary Kirkham in 1806, and the execution of her murderer and erstwhile suitor, Tom Otter, whose skull was said to have provided a home for nesting blue tits when he was gibbeted at Saxilby. However, one of the darkest episodes in the county’s history took place in 1255, when an antisemitic rumour began to circulate in Lincoln that a young boy named Hugh had been murdered by a local Jewish man. This led not only to the arrest, torture and execution of the suspect, but the imprisonment of ninety-one others, eighteen of whom were also executed. The boy’s burial place became a shrine, and “Little Saint Hugh” acquired legendary status, becoming the subject of ballads and folk songs.
Those who, like me, appreciate tales of the strange and uncanny will enjoy reading about the ghostly goings-on at Epworth Rectory, home, in the eighteenth century, not only to the Wesleys, but also, it was said, to a noisy and disincarnate spirit called “Old Jeffrey”. We learn of the spectral “Green Lady” who haunts a tree-lined avenue near Thorpe Hall in Louth, and the “Black Lady” of Bradley Woods, still weeping for her lost children. The county also has tales of water sprites, wild men and mysterious big cats, and, although not mentioned by Turner, Black Shuck, the demonic hellhound that patrols the county’s byways, its red eyes flaming like coals through the fen mists.1 Anyone eager to explore the supernatural aspects of Lincolnshire further may want to consult a series of hair-raising articles by Rob Gandy in recent editions of Fortean Times.2
Turner says of the Lincolnshire-born antiquarian, William Stukeley, that he could see “the magic of words”. If so, Stukeley would have appreciated the spellbinding mellifluosity of Turner’s own writing. Almost every page yields memorable examples. Consider, for instance, Turner’s charming distillation of one village’s peculiarities and idiosyncrasies as “a little ampoule of English eccentricity” – his spinetingling description of old gateways as “unquiet, touched by the memories of everyone who has ever gone through them, especially if they never came back” – and his description of a carved stone man, high on the forlorn ruins of Barlings Abbey, abandoned at the time of the Dissolution, “stuck in eternal outrage, his mouth forever open as if howling at all this sacrilege and sky”. Turner sees poetry in the everyday, as when he recalls a dead carrion crow, “lying in a patch of sun beneath trees, intact and gleamingly black, studded with iridescent greenbottles, like a mislaid piece of Visigoth jewellery”, or when he waxes lyrical about the vistas that open up from the Humber bridge, “especially to the west on a warm evening when it has been raining, with the sun going down in splendour, and backlit air and water so full of each other that it is like being inside a pearl”.
The reader is also treated to some wonderfully dry asides, perhaps my favourite being an anecdote about a cringeworthy sermon given by the new Bishop of Lincoln at his enthronement, its low culture references jarring awkwardly with the high pomp of the ceremony that had preceded it. Turner concludes, somewhat archly, “The Order of Service read ‘After the sermon, silence is kept for a few moments,’ and it was, but not necessarily for the right reasons”.
Edge of England is a book to savour and is accompanied by thirty-two colour plates and a rather beautiful, Tolkienesque map in which the Wolds take on something of the aspect of the “misty mountains”.
‘The Ruskington horror,’ Fortean Times 401, 32-38 (January 2021); ‘The Ruskington horror: part 2,’ Fortean Times 402, 38-43 (February 2021); ‘The Ruskington goblin,’ Fortean Times 405, 48-38 (May 2021); ‘Weird wheels of the Wolds,’ Fortean Times 407, 48-51 (July 2021); ‘Scary stories from Scunthorpe,’ Fortean Times 411, 48-52 (November 2021); ‘Not the face,’ Fortean Times 414, 46-47 (January 2022); ‘Lincolnshire’s bevy of the bizarre,’ Fortean Times 416, 44-48 (March 2022); ‘A warning to the Fortean,’ Fortean Times 421, 42-45 (August 2022); ‘A grand fen-ale!’ Fortean Times 423, 42-45 (October 2022)
PAUL GARNER is a researcher, speaker and writer based in the Cambridgeshire Fens. His interests include the natural sciences, Christian theology, classic TV sci-fi and fantasy, British folklore, and the ghost stories of M. R. James. He is also a dancer with the Devil’s Dyke Morris Men
“Quite something, isn’t it?” the American woman asked, nodding towards Stonehenge. “However many pictures you see, it’s something to see it for real!” I didn’t disagree. As over-exposed as the Mona Lisa, emblazoned on a billion brochures, co-opted into countless works of counter-culture, and passed by an often tail-backed road – still, there’s something about Stonehenge.
It was my third time to see it for real. The first as a boy, perhaps six, glimpsed from a hot car’s window (where were we going?) to see the much-smaller than expected stones sticking up from sheep-shorn grass. The second time, 20 or so years ago, a blurred stop-off during an idiotically over-ambitious idea for a road trip – to condense half of H. V. Morton’s In Search of England itinerary into a two week holiday. And now, again, once upon a time, this summer…
Stonehenge stands on a plateau of dreams, simultaneously preternaturally solid and seeming to exist somewhere beyond time. Clouds chase, clench and dissipate constantly over, sometimes emphasising the stones’ bulk, sometimes making them seem insignificant, sometimes like a baldachino over a high altar, sometimes piling up fantastical vapour-realms of their own before clearing them away again. Even in a scorching August, the fields around blond with wheat, there is constant movement in the air, and you remember Constable’s menacing skies surmounting what the 1836 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition catalogue called breathlessly
the mysterious monument of Stonehenge, standing remote on a bare and boundless heath
Constable’s empyrean emphasis suits this “sky-directed open temple…a product peculiarly British” (1). The stones may be immemorial, but they are also unsettling – because they are immemorial, Before Present, beyond comprehension. Stereotypically seen as symbols of England, they antedate not just any idea of England, but the concept of Britain. Even sarsen, a word much-heard here, is exotically un-English, a Wiltshire dialect corruption of Saracen:
The country people called them Saracens because they felt that these harsh, angular blocks were alien to the yielding curves of the chalk on which they lay (2)
The great stones support the sky – are world-axes, around which the cosmos spins at staggering speed.
Lesser circles have been made into bathetic moral lessons – the villagers who danced on a Sunday, the men chasing the virtuous maid, arrows hurled unavailingly by the Old Adversary. But Stonehenge occupies an imaginative space of its own, cynosure of a country, the uprights like gnomons of a sundial shadowing the seasons, and the seconds of spans. We should not let our preoccupation with time colour our views of past practices (3), but the stones display some awareness of lunar and solar cycles, and such knowledge would have been important in ways inconceivable to us.
When the first wooden pillars were erected circa 2800 BC, the area had probably been sacred for five centuries – perhaps even longer, because nearby Amesbury is Britain’s oldest continuously inhabited settlement. When the wooden uprights were superseded with stones 600 years later, it may have marked the onset of a darker age, as suggested by all the arrowheads found with the Amesbury Archer, or “King of Stonehenge”, unearthed in 2002, one of several warlike contemporaneous burials in the vicinity.
Stonehenge is not just inert rocks erected with infinite labour, for obscure and quaintly irrelevant purposes. It is also illimitable horizons, gentled grave-mounds like the breasts of sleeping women, the stirring of wind in grass when you lie down to listen, tiny downland flowers bent over with bumble-bees, the cries of stalking rooks, the Bronze Age tang of sheep.
Like Tolkien’s Barrow Downs, close to the complacent Shire, Stonehenge evokes ancient dead, tangled genealogies, forgotten wars, grassed-over kingdoms, buried beakers and bladeless swords, epics returned to earth. Those who come to see it bring their own ghosts, ideas and memories at once achingly personal, and parts of huger stories. The unspeaking stones send signals to some – symbologists say monoliths have “lithophanic” qualities (4), and many visitors have claimed they can feel them vibrating – and of course within their own timeframe even the solidest stones are frozen movements. The old British name for Stonehenge was the Giants’ Dance, and that old imputation of restlessness revives itself for imaginative individuals in every age, like Peter Ackroyd:
At the time of their erection, these great stones seemed magnificent and immoveable in the earth; now, from a distance of 4,000 years, they dance in a pattern before us (5)
There is a theory that the Romans damaged the stones deliberately, and if true this may attest to uneasiness about the monument’s importance to the subjugated natives, but also the Empire’s inability to erase it. After the Romans themselves had been grassed-over, the Anglo-Saxons stared at these gallows-like “hanging stones” left by the tribes they were driving to the hilltops and further west. Their Stan-heng stood as they became English, and Wessex one of Europe’s powers. Wessex’s Edgar styled himself “King of England and Ruler of the Islands and of the Sea Kings”, just two generations before his House too went under turf.
Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum (published c. 1129) judged Stonehenge one of the “marvels” of Britain, and said they seemed to float. Geoffrey of Monmouth turned the stuff of Britain into its Matter by claiming in Historia Regum Britanniae (1135-1139) that the circle had been ordered by one Aurelius Ambrosianus as a memorial to 460 British lords slain treacherously by Saxons. The stones, Geoffrey fantasized, had been taken from Ireland with the aid of the wizard Merlin, and Aurelius and his son Uther Pendragon (father of King Arthur) interred at their feet.
The Norman-French Wace augmented this Arthurian association, and cemented the stones in Christian and kingly culture, in his Roman de Brut (c. 1155), describing the magical healing powers of the “Giant’s Carol”, here describing the ceremonies after the Britons had “eased the Irish of the stones”:
The king rode to Ambresbury [Amesbury] to keep the Feast of Pentecost. Bishops, abbots, and barons, he had bidden them all to observe the Feast. A great company of folk, both rich and poor, gathered themselves together, and at this fair festival the king set the crown upon his head. Three days they observed the rite, and made merry, On the fourth, because of his exceeding reverence he gave pastoral crosses to two prelates…At the same time Merlin ranged the stones in due order, building them side by side (6)
Stonehenge was depicted in the anonymous 1440s history Scala Mundi, and mentioned in John Hardyng’s Chronicle of c. 1457,
Whiche now so hight the Stonehengles fulle sure
Bycause thay henge and somwhat bowand ere.
In wondre wyse men mervelle how thay bere
The answer to early speculation about how Stonehenge came to be built was usually – giants. Giant myths were ubiquitous in England, as everywhere, their existence attested in Genesis 6:4, Chronicles 5:4, Numbers 13:33, Ezekiel 38-39, and Revelations 20:7-10. The Ezekiel giant, Gog of the land of Magog, in particular became associated with England; the archaeologist T. C. Lethbridge claimed the Gogmagog Hills near Cambridge harboured a lost giant turf-carving, and wooden statues of Gog and Magog (now somehow become two giants) peer down from the walls of London’s Guildhall (7). The name Albion itself was sometimes applied to an evil giant who had come to Britain before The Flood; Geoffrey of Monmouth and others spun epics about confrontations between giants and refugee Trojans in the days before England. Giants were not always Biblical monsters; they could also be heroic – hugely impressive ancestors, a demonstration of the degeneracy of modern men.
Dorset’s celebrated Cerne figure, not that far from Stonehenge, shows a regional sense of giants’ onetime reality. The giant is undoubtedly imposing – each of his fingers is seven feet (2.1m) long, and the club in his hand 40 yards (36.5m) – but no-one knows how old he is. The earliest written record is from 1694, when the figure was being recut. The effigy has been imaginatively ‘identified’ as an unknown fertility God, the Celtic huntsman Herne, and the Roman Emperor Commodus (8). He has often been simply an embarrassment to local or passing prudes. A 19th century priest ended the annual scouring of the giant because the event too often ended in couples having sex on the most obvious part of the figure. In the Dorset volume of The King’s England series (1939), Arthur Mee says prissily,
All we know is that he is very old and very ugly, and we are glad that he is now the property of the National Trust which will look after him forever on his hillside throne
before passing on with palpable relief to the “pretty windows and doorways” of the village.
The Renaissance and Reformation gradually brought new perspectives – more classical, more realistic, yet also more cabalistic and Hermetic. In 1542, Henry VIII’s peripatetic chaplain John Leland mentioned Avebury in his Itinerary. In 1562, Swiss student Herman Folkerzheimer was brought to Stonehenge by the Bishop of Salisbury, and wrote amazedly to a friend that if he had not seen it for himself, he would never have believed it. In 1568-9, the exiled Dutch artist Lucas de Heere drew Stonehenge in suitably English watercolour, with a spurring horseman to show scale. Holinshed nodded to “Druiydes” in his Chronicles, and Michael Drayton’s long patriotic poem Poly-Olbion (1598-1622) featured “fearlesse British priests” under “aged Oakes” sacrificing white bulls, and cutting mistletoe with golden axes.
Writers on these subjects were inspired by numerous, newly-available Roman accounts – including Caesar, Cicero, Strabo and Tacitus – of the Druids of the barbarian west as fey combination of story-tellers, tribal leaders, and powerful necromancers. There was growing interest in this wild west of Englishness, where ancient warlike spirits of Albion were thought to reside – avatars for the England of Elizabeth, a romantic warrior-queen like Boudicca had been, and resister of invaders.
Tudor chivalric patriotism bled into Stuart-era antiquarianism. Dilettante-scholars combined classicism with an interest in ancient mysteries, astrology with astronomy, geomancy with geometry, mysticism with mathematics, and romance with something like science. In 1620, James I dispatched Inigo Jones to study the stones; the Rome-revering Jones wrote in Stone-Heng (1655) that they could not possibly have been erected by his own ancestors, but by the Romans as a temple, and to show the locals the principles of Vitruvian architecture. This was a rational response to the giants-and-magic farrago of the Matter of Britain, although Jones had to alter the monument’s ground plan to suit his theory. Jones went on to demonstrate these Vitruvian principles personally by redesigning Wilton House near Salisbury (the county name derives from Wilton, which means ‘settlement on the River Wylye’), and his innovative Double Cube Room has become an exemplar of that time’s tastes (9).
Jones was employed by Charles I as a man of many arts – architect, costume designer, historian and image-maker. His son would indulge Wiltshire-born John Aubrey, a clever, clubbable proto-ethnographer, as a means of understanding the arc of English history. Aubrey came upon Avebury by chance in 1649, while coursing in the “thin, blew country” of the Plain. He was “wonderfully surprised at the sight of those vast stones of which I had never heard before”. It may seem strange that someone of his tastes, who lived not far away, had never heard of the monument before; perhaps that was because, as Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson observed, there is “astonishingly little folklore attached to this site” (10). Aubrey returned, and went on to Stonehenge, to marvel and measure holes (11), incorporating the monuments into a county-wide collection of folklore.
Aubrey was an inveterate collector of folk-traditions, so much so that he got an unfair reputation for being credulous. But without his writings, a great deal of county colour might have been forever lost, and England’s identity impoverished. England owes Aubrey and a few others, like Joseph Glanvill (12), a huge debt for preserving such lore as the large white birds seen whenever a Bishop of Salisbury was dying – the melancholy boy-bishop tickled to death by his fellow choristers – St Aldhelm, who was conceived while his mother was walking by a churchyard cross, and later flew to Rome on a tamed demonic horse – the unwanted child burned in an aristocrat’s bedroom – fairy dances on Hackpen Hill – and the grains of wheat that fell in hailstones in 1681. In 1663, he induced Charles II to come and view these western wonders for himself, and this descent loaned the stones fashionableness as well as enchantment. John Evelyn came in 1654, Samuel Pepys in 1668.
The King’s stately progress en route to Somerset was in startling contrast to his 1651 visit to Stonehenge, when he had been a fugitive with a reward of £1,000 offered by those who had beheaded his father. He had been hiding at nearby Heale House, while plans were made to smuggle him to France, and at the suggestion of his hostess had gone out for a ride for a few hours in order to come back secretly while the servants were out. Even in such circumstances, he retained his famously enquiring mind (13) and whilst killing time disproved an old superstition, as his sole companion, steadfast Colonel Robert Philips, later told an amanuensis:
Ye King and Coll: Phelipps rid about ye downes and viewed Stonnage and found yt ye Kings Arithmetick gaue ye lye to yt fabulous tale yt those stones cannot be told alike twice together (14)
A few nights later, Charles made a 3am departure from Heale, the hostile night made still more fraught by the breaking of his horse’s harness, necessitating hasty running repairs in the darkness. Those must have been intense memories for the proud 21 year-old; he would later say his six weeks on the run had been the best time of his life (15).
Aubrey and others made valiant efforts to square Biblical, classical and folk beliefs with a growing number of field finds; mammoths’ bones were thought to be those of giants, while flint arrowheads were “elf-bolts”. As Richard Morris has noted, “As well as being a humanity-science, archaeology is also a branch of Gothic romance” (16).
Aubrey’s suggestion that Druids were Stonehenge’s architects was backed up by the pioneering Celtic scholar Edward Lhuyd in his Archaeologica Britannica (1707). William Stukeley took up their errors enthusiastically and added to them in his 1740 Stonehenge, a Temple restored to the British Druids, and 1743’s Abury, A Temple of the British Druids. The first accurate survey of the stones was carried out in 1740 by John Wood, architect of Georgian Bath. All this informed Blake, who wrote of “the Druid’s golden knife / Rioted in human gore”, and depicted druids worshipping snakes, and Gray’s The Bard, “rob’d in the sable gab of woe, / With haggard eyes the poet stood”. (17) Even now, British identity cannot easily be separated from Druidry, as evidenced at every Eisteddfod.
Where remains were inconsistent with ‘revelation’, or just seen as impediments to agriculture, they could be targeted for destruction by the ignorant. In the early 14th century, there had been a rash of stone-breaking at Avebury – a corpse found there, dating from the 1320s, may be the body of a barber-surgeon killed whilst trying to topple the stones. In 1719, Stukeley was infuriated to see the religiously-enthused (and building material-seeking) villagers of Avebury – one of whom he immortalised as “Stone-Killer” Robinson – engaged in systematic destruction and toppling of
this stupendous fabric, which for some thousands of years, had brav’d the continual assaults of weather, and by the nature of it, when left to itself, like the pyramids of Egypt, would have lasted as long as the globe (18)
Wordsworth wrote On Salisbury Plain in 1793, and reworked and republished it under several titles between then and 1842:
Much of the wonders of that boundless heath He spoke, and of a swain who far astray Reached unawares a height and saw beneath Gigantic beings ranged in dread array. Such beings thwarting oft the traveller's way With shield and stone-ax stride across the wold. Or, throned on that dread circle's summit gray Of mountains hung in air, their state unfold, And like a thousand Gods mysterious council hold. (19)
The Romantic era had arrived, a time for national and personal expression, and crises of confidence. From the 1830s on, there was growing awareness of the idea of prehistory, a concept previously seen as unnecessary or even evil, by those who felt history’s trajectory had been set out in the Bible. The fossils of Lyme Regis had proven the almost inconceivable ancientness of the earth – the very chalk made up of centillions of individually insignificant creatures like the fairy shrimps that lie dormant in the dried-up puddles of the Plain, awaiting rain to spark off a frenzy of mating, dying and laying down more chalk. Ancient Britons and their real or supposed sites became common themes in the arts, the visual representations of Constable, Turner, Girtin, and the Havells strengthened by the verbal tributes of such as Wordsworth and Keats, whose Hyperion evoked a
Of Druid stones, upon a forlorn moor
When the chill rain begins at shut of eve,
In dull November
The more conservative-minded Constable went on from Stonehenge to paint Salisbury Cathedral as beautiful but embattled edifice, haloed by rainbows in yet more unsettled skies, a symbol of the soul of England menaced by agrarian unrest and the Reform Bill that would sweep away rotten boroughs, like Old Sarum up the road – home of the venerable Sarum Rite (20), and pocket borough of the Pitts, preservers of English liberties. Constable, Roy Strong observes,
…paints his landscapes as Georgic images of Britain, visions of thriving husbandry and industry, a microcosm of the nation (21)
Constable would probably not have recognised the traces of ancient agriculture – the terraces of old lynchet strips, the false-oat grass that nodded where real oats once waved – but he was conscious of the terrible grandeur of time. Probably he too was struck by the Cathedral’s faceless clock, claimed to be the world’s oldest working timepiece, which is estimated to have ticked 4.4 billion times between 1386 and 1884 and 1956-2013 (unhappily, it was allowed to stop between 1884 and 1956).
Time ticked on across the heedless Plain, and the wool industry dwindled, making Wiltshire one of the poorest counties in England (it may be suggestive that the folk-song Salisbury Plain is about highway robbery). That poverty itself lent lustre to supposed ancestral vigour, and artists continued to stream westwards, drawn by nostalgic, romantic and post-religious impulses. They were joined by amateur geologists and tourists-cum-vandals – when Thomas Carlyle took Ralph Waldo Emerson to Stonehenge in 1848, they noted the “marks of the mineralogist’s hammer and chisel on almost every stone”.
The 19th century’s greats were joined in the 20th century by artists including Paul Nash, John Piper, Henry Moore and Eric Ravilious. As part of the 1960s and 1970s craze for anything folk-horror and ‘unexplained’, Derek Jarman took abstract photos of the monuments, and made an atmospheric short silent film, Journey to Avebury. Avebury and Stonehenge featured in the children’s TV series, Children of the Stones, and a TV mini-series of Quatermass. (Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale had earlier made The Stone Tape, a 1972 TV play about old stonework ‘recording’ ancient horrors.) Artistic interest is not letting up, as evinced by Jeremy Deller’s playful-serious 2018 life-size bouncy castle Stonehenge. The stones appeal, as Deller reflects, because
It’s a symbol of the nation and you project whatever your feelings are about the country on to it…It’s weirdly democratic in terms of ideas. It represents us but we don’t know what it is. It is a place we can turn to in moments of stress and anxiety to try to ask it for some sort of meaning, to give our lives some structure, to connect us to the past
World-wonders though they are, Stonehenge and Avebury are only elements of a greater geography, a ceremonial country of alignments, avenues, barrows, cursus monuments, ditches, enclosures, forts, hills, and trackways, that was only ever half-Christianised. In 2014, traces shown at Stonehenge after a spell of dry weather impelled a major subterranean survey which showed the stones as survivors of something even more substantial, and emotionally charged. What is visible at Avebury is also part of an even wider plan.
Wiltshire also holds Silbury Hill, the largest prehistoric man-made mound in Europe (40 metres/130 feet high). Silbury is a flat-topped, turf-covered cone, around which legends long clustered. Aubrey (who else?) recorded the Hill was thought the resting place of “King Zel”, that mythical monarch’s name conveying the pleasant Z-sound and burr of the local accent across the centuries. Others asserted the Hill held a life-size horse and rider made of solid gold. A lust for this trinket, or for insight into ancientness, has impelled several excavations, although little has ever been found – except the tiny remains of winged ants, suggesting that Silbury was begun in some August of around 2600 BC. Ants identical to those still alight on the Plain’s swards, its endangered juniper, squinancy-wort and bastard toadflax, and the backs of great bustards – Wiltshire’s emblematic bird, the crest on its coat-of-arms, reintroduced in 2003 after far too long an absence. It seems oddly relevant to note that Alfred Watkins, of “ley lines” fame (22), noted the proportion in size between a man and Silbury was the same as that of an ant and an anthill – Wiltshire’s anthills, inevitably for that author, falling “into certain patterns and alignments”.
Zooming out yet further, Wiltshire is part of an even wider west that is both older than archaic and bound up intimately with all kinds of ideas of ourselves. Some of these have firm foundations – the fossils of the Jurassic Coast, Portland’s and Purbeck’s nation-building stone, the quoits, rings and megaliths of Cornwall and Dartmoor, the graded, rounded pebbles of Chesil Beach.
Others are a combination of historical, national and personal – Dorchester’s Maiden Castle (to Thomas Hardy, “an enormous many-limbed organism of an antediluvian time”), Portland Castle, part of Henry VIII’s “Device” for national protection, the swannery at Abbotsbury, Eliot’s East Coker (“In my end is my beginning”), and the sheer loveliness of chalk downs, with their recherché orchids and resurgent red kites.
Still others are eccentric, albeit engaging, and bound up in bizarre ‘Britishness’ – Stonehenge being built by refugees from Atlantis, Joseph of Arimathea planting his thorn at Glastonbury, Arthur’s Tintagel, the “Beast of Bodmin”, landscape Zodiacs, crop-circles, geodetics, dowsing, magnetic, orgone and telluric energies, megalithic measurements and numerological schemes uniting Stonehenge with the Great Pyramid. Unreason adapts itself to new realities, just as the advent of air photography led to people suddenly ‘seeing’ landscape zodiacs. The West Country is big enough to carry all kinds of contradictory connotations – simultaneously locale of lands of youth, and the land of the setting sun. We can “go west” to find adventure, or the Holy Grail, or to die – or all of those at once.
It was not until the 20th century that serious attempts would be made to explore Avebury and Stonehenge systematically, protect what was left, and restore whatever could be restored. Stonehenge has long been blighted by mass tourism – the stones were fenced off in 1901, and since then have been protected, first by private landowners, then by the National Trust and English Heritage. Avebury was saved largely by the efforts of Alexander Keiller, who ploughed his inheritance from the family’s marmalade business into buying up as much of Avebury as he could, personally delving into the haunted earth in search of magic and truth. Even the starriest-eyed romantics can bring refuse in their wake; the 700 earnest Edwardian white robed druids who descended on Stonehenge for the Midsummer dawn of 1905 had become a litter-strewing free-for-all by the 1960s, the acolytes of the ‘New Age’ incapable not just of seriousness, but even of protecting the earth they affected to love.
In 1951, Jacquetta Hawkes repined –
It will never again be possible to see [Stonehenge] as Constable did when he made his studies, a place of mystery against a background of storms and flying showers; it is doubtful if it could ever again have the deep impact on any man that it once had on Wordsworth; it seems no longer a setting fit for one of Hardy’s gigantic stereoscopic scenes (23)
It is easy to agree with such assessments when considering the present plan to build a tunnel at Stonehenge (24), but even if the tunnel goes ahead, people don’t change just because roads move. There have always been people like “Stone-Killer” Robinson, and their numbers may even be growing. But there have also always been others, from the nameless Megalithic engineer-visionaries via medieval saints and chroniclers, Aubrey, Stukeley, Constable, Lewis Spence (25), Alfred Watkins, John Michell (26), musician-turned-antiquarian Julian Cope, and many more – all very different, yet unified in seeking what Michell called “poetic rather than scientific truth” in this otherworldly west. This is not to mention the Prince of Wales, whose “New Urban” Poundbury development near Dorchester is a slightly surreal attempt to overlay an ideal of an organic and harmonious England onto an uglier actuality.
Perhaps ironically, the chief guarantor of the Plain’s remaining beauty is the long-standing military presence. This has often been a land of war, as all those grave mounds show, but the War Office began buying up parcels of the Plain systematically in 1898. In 1943, the army annexed the village of Imber (it took Dorset’s more famous Tyneham the same year) and never gave it back. Now, roughly half the Plain is given over to the army, with large-scale exercises, artillery training at Larkhill, and secret research at Porton Down. The town of Wootton Bassett in the north of the county was granted “Royal” status in 2011, because of the movingly respectful response of townspeople to the sad stream of bodies of British soldiers being repatriated through the town’s RAF base after falling in the pointless Middle Eastern battles of the Blair years – an echo, in a way, of crusaders brought back centuries ago after falling in some sweaty Levantine skirmish, to await the day of judgment in less heated English earth.
Olive-drab lorries full of squaddies are frequently seen, live shells are fired by night, and roads have designated tank crossings. These lumbering behemoths are figurative and organisational heirs to cavalry traditions graven on folk-memory and in some places literally incised into the land, with outsize white horses cut into the chalk at Alton Barnes, Broad Town, Cherhill, Devizes, Hackpen, Pewsey and Westbury, giant steeds for giant riders.
Other martial memories are engraved on slopes near Amesbury and Fovant in the shape of huge regimental badges – the Wiltshire Regiment and Wiltshire Yeomanry, but also Empire-answering Anzacs, the Royal Corps of Signals (whose Mercury evokes the giants of myth), and even the Post Office Rifles. All those who carved all these are long under the earth, but still the chalk communicates – white abstract lines alive with meaning, signalling past glories and griefs to the present, and the poets of a future as unimaginable to us as we would have been to the builders of the petrified past.
Grahame Clark and Stuart Piggott, Prehistoric Societies, 1965
Jacquetta Hawkes, A Land, 1951. Confusingly, the word sarsen is actually applied to the local sandstone, rather than the igneous ‘bluestone’ brought from Pembrokeshire
See John North, The Story of Time, various authors, including Umberto Eco and E. H. Gombrich, Royal Maritime Museum, 2000. Insofar as substantive astronomical or calendrical knowledge is demonstrated at Stonehenge (and elsewhere in Europe), the conventional idea that it must have emanated from the Near East was challenged by Harvard archaeologist Alexander Marshack in 1972, who suggested that the seemingly random notches and lines scratched on Paleolithic plaques were actually lunar calendars and numbering sequences. A useful discussion of this may be found in Richard Rudgley’s Lost Civilisations of The Stone Age (Century, 1998)
See J. E. Cirlot, in his 1958 classic Diccionario de símbolos (A Dictionary of Symbols, my edition, Dover House, 2002, translated by Jack Sage)
Peter Ackroyd, The History of England, Volume 1: Foundation, Macmillan, 2011
Translated by Eugene Mason, and published as Arthurian Chronicles represented by Wace and Layamon, Everyman’s Library, 1912 (my edition 1928)
T. C. Lethbridge, Gogmagog: The Buried Gods, 1957; his theory has never been generally accepted, perhaps partly because of his generic interest in what he called “the odd” – ghosts, dowsing, etc. The Gog and Magog effigies in London’s Guildhall are 1953 copies of 1708 originals which were incinerated in the Blitz
Commodus sought to revive the Greek cult of Herakles, and was sometimes represented carrying a Herakles-style club
The Double Cube Room may be glimpsed in famous films, including Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Nicholas Hytner’s The Madness of King George.
Jennifer Westwood & Jacqueline Simpson, The Lore of the Land, Penguin, 2005
The holes (probably ritual pits) noted by Aubrey at Stonehenge are still called the Aubrey Holes
Another influential intellectual was Joseph Glanvill, whose investigation of the poltergeist “Drummer of Tedworth” (now Tidworth), published as Saducismus Triumphatus in 1681, helped put Wiltshire on the unearthly map
Mr. Robert Phelipp’s Narrative of the Occurrences between September 25 and October 15, 1651, reproduced in The Royal Miracle, A. M. Broadbent, 1912. It might be more accurate to say that Charles attempted to disprove an old superstition, because many experienced difficulty counting the stones (the fear was that anyone who succeeded in tallying them correctly would die). In 1654, Aubrey made a total of 95; in 1690, Celia Fiennes found 91; in 1724, Daniel Defoe was certain there were 72; in 1740, William Stukeley insisted on 140
The King may have dwelled rather too often on his adventures – “The moment that [Charles’] restoration removed the shadow of reprisals, he began to discourse on the subject and, in the view of some his courtiers, was all too ready to revert to it throughout the twenty-five years of his reign” The Image of the King: Charles I and Charles II, Richard Ollard, Phoenix Press, 1979
Richard Morris, Time’s Anvil: England, Geography and the Imagination, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2013
The Druid Source Book, edited by John Matthews (Blandford, 1996) offers an interesting survey of old and new writings on the subject
Abury, A Temple of the British Druids
There is a discussion of the poem’s evolution, and links to the different texts, here
The musicologist Nicholas Sandon feels “Sarum chant cannot claim any great originality…the variants are insufficiently large, systematic or stable to constitute a recognizable dialect”. Quoted in Music in the West Country, Stephen Banfield, Boydell & Brewer, 2018. However, Banfield does cite an anonymous 13th century Paris-based (although possibly English) music theorist who discerned a noticeable (highly technical) difference between “westcuntre” plainchant and that heard elsewhere
See The Spirit of Britain: A Narrative History of the Arts, Roy Strong, 2000
See The Old Straight Track, 1925
A Land, ibid.
A government decision on this scheme is expected in November 2020, although it may be deferred again, over concerns about both costs and potential damage to the wider prehistoric landscape. This is the Highways Agency plan – and this the website of the anti-tunnel Stonehenge Alliance
Author of The Mysteries of Britain: Secret Rites and Traditions of Ancient Britain Restored, 1905
DEREK TURNER is the editor of The Brazen Head, as well as a novelist (A Modern Journey, Displacement, and Sea Changes) and reviewer. His first non-fiction book, Edge of England: Landfall in Lincolnshire, was published June 2022. Some of his writing may be found at www.derek-turner.com He is also on Twitter – @derekturner1964